Sense of place. It’s a concept in the world of ecology that I was introduced to when I was 19-years old and majoring in Environmental Studies in college. At the time, I really had no idea what it meant. Even as professors and other students unraveled the idea to me, I found it very hard to relate to. What did it mean to feel connected to a specific place? Though I had lived in the same town for the first 17 years of my life, I felt no sense that that place, or any place, was truly my place.
This idea didn’t begin to make sense to me until I was 22 years old when I traveled to Israel for the first time. I had spent the previous two months traveling in West Africa and during my time there I recorded my experience on 13 rolls of film and the pages of three entire journals. My African friends wondered why I was always writing. However, upon arriving in Israel, something strange happened. Even though it was also my first time in Israel, I suddenly found myself no longer taking pictures and no longer writing in my journal. I couldn’t figure out why until one day it hit me. At home in New York, I didn’t take pictures and I didn’t write in my journal because these were things I only did to document time spent in new and foreign lands. While Israel was in so many ways new and foreign to me, I didn’t feel the need to document my daily experiences because I felt something there I had never felt before, not even at “home” in New York. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of place.
While I’m not the only one to experience this phenomenon, the question still begs to be asked: how does it make sense that a land I’ve never been to felt more like home than my hometown in America did within just a few days of being there?
To begin answering this question, I have to start by sharing that I teach Jewish History at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program in Hod HaSharon. With each group I teach, our studies begin at the very beginning of the Jewish story as we learn about our patriarch Avraham. In class, we talk about him as a man who was completely alone in his beliefs, an individual going against the grain of an entire society. Then finally at the age of 75 he hears his first confirming voice from the one G-d who he’s believed courageously in his entire life and the first thing he is told by this one G-d is to pack his bags and get out of town. And to where? To “a place that I will show you.”
We’re not given access to Avraham’s mind and thoughts at this point in the story; we’re just told that he obediently leaves with his wife Sarah along with a following of disciples and students. At this point in my lesson, I pause and ask my students, “What do you imagine Avraham was thinking when he heard these words? What do you think he was expecting to see in this new land to which he was being led?” All kinds of answers are shared, but inevitably someone says that Avraham is probably expecting to be brought to a paradise-like land with people who, like him, are all monotheistic and where he can fit in, feel at home and no longer feel like society’s outcast and renegade. With that in mind, we continue to learn, using the text along with historical and archaeological evidence as our guides and we see that the new land that Avraham is lead to is no haven for monotheism but rather a land of idol worshippers even worse than the ones he left behind.
Having discovered this, we then ask the question: Why?! Why would G-d bring Avraham, his faithful, chosen servant, to a land that is filled with moral and spiritual challenges? Why not bring him to a different land, a far-away land, even an uninhabited land, where Avraham can grow into a nice monotheistic nation away from any tension or conflict with cultures with opposing belief systems?
As we begin to answer this question, I share with my class an idea that I borrowed from a fellow teacher at my school. That maybe there are life lessons that Avraham, and eventually the entire Jewish people, needed to learn and things that he needed to do that could only be learned and only be done in the actual, physical land of Israel. Maybe there’s something about this place and this location that is so inherently vital to who we Jews are as a people and to our global mission that no other land in the world could possibly do.
If we assume that is true (and I do), so what is it? What is the connection between the geographical location of the land of Israel and the vision and the mission of the nation of Israel?
There are many ways to answer this question and here is one. When one looks at a map of the ancient world, the land of Israel stands out as hovering right in the middle between the two major civilizations of that time period, Egypt and Mesopotamia, with the major trade routes between them passing right through Israel. On those roads traveled not only the merchants from these neighboring cultures but also the ideas and beliefs that made them so different than Avraham and his nascent tribe. This posed both a challenge as well as an opportunity to him and, later on, to his descendants after they first settled the land. The challenge clearly was the influence of foreign traditions that could, and eventually would, sway the Jews away from their own distinct beliefs, practices and goals. The opportunity, on the other hand, was the chance to positively influence the surrounding peoples with their unique approach to morals and religion, allowing Avraham and his descendants to fulfill their role as “a light unto the nations”.
What is so unique at the beginning of Jewish history is that our national mission, or opportunity, is born out of the very situation that creates our greatest national challenge. In fact, they intertwine in such a way as to lead us to believe that one cannot even exist without the other and that Judaism and the Jewish nation came into existence as a literal counter-culture to the status quo. But, truth be told, this same challenge of polytheism certainly existed in Babylonia, Avraham’s homeland, as well as the opportunity to influence the masses with his revolutionary ideas, being from Haran, a major urban center in the ancient world.
So the question still begs to be asked: why was Avraham sent specifically to the land of Israel? Why was he sent anywhere at all? On one level we can say, that if Avraham was relocated to that faraway utopian society that maybe he dreamed of there would be no one to hear his message and no challenge for him to work in contrast to. But even staying in Haran was not an option because, though it was his birthplace, it wasn’t his true place in the world. He needed to be within the borders of the land of Israel to really come into the person who he was and was destined to be. He needed to come to this place in order to connect himself and his descendants, the Jewish nation, to the unique spiritual, metaphysical reality that was specially designed to foster and to forward the work that we specifically were charged with doing in this world.
And the same can be said once again for the Jewish people today.
Jews throughout the centuries who endured the long and cruel exile envisioned the eventual return of the Jews to the land of Israel in a utopian, messianic way with Jews flocking home from the four corners of the Earth “on the wings of eagles”. Like Avraham, possibly, they never imagined that coming to live in Israel would be plagued with constant challenges and obstacles. And yet, upon returning and reestablishing ourselves on our ancient soil, we have faced decades of war, terrorism and international condemnation and de-legitimization. Could my great-grandfather from Poland ever imagined Jews back in the land of Israel dealing with Hamas and Hezbullah?
And the same question that we ask of Avraham we can ask of ourselves today, namely, why did we need to come to this specific place? Why didn’t the early Zionist leaders choose to reestablish Jewish sovereignty elsewhere in the world, somewhere off to the side and out-of-the-way? Some of those early leaders for sure sensed that our presence in the Middle East would lead to years of war and conflict, yet we still moved forward with the Zionist plan, even turning down the British offer to create a Jewish state in Africa. Why?
Just as the question is the same, the answer is as well. We as Jews needed to return not only to self-rule and statehood but also to the actual, physical land of Israel. To reconnect to the place not only where our ancient history happened, but, maybe more importantly, where our most meaningful and significant present and future can take place, based on the intimate relationship we have with this specific area of land since the times of Avraham. Israel is the only area of physical earth in the entire world where the Jewish nation could truly be re-born and realize and manifest its national mission, sharing with the world its universal message that echoes the words of the ancient prophets.
I write these words from New York on a family visit from Israel, staying for three weeks in the same house and in the same town where I grew up. Whenever I visit here, after the immediate culture shock wears off somewhat, I am hit with a strong sense of nostalgia for the past I had here, bordering on a longing for what I left behind when I made aliyah nine years ago. Though my love for Israel has only grown stronger with each year that I live there, when I visit America, especially when I see so many Jews living what seems like fulfilling Jewish lives here, there is a voice inside of me that bubbles to the surface and asks the question: “So why exactly did I feel the need to move half-way across the world, far away from my family and everything I’ve ever known?”
Life is easier here in America, so it seems. Good jobs with good pay. Big green lawns for your kids to play on. Rain storms in the summer. Giant stores with everything you need and don’t need in one place. A place where I can actually understand everything I hear on the radio and read about in the newspaper. And to top it off, no countries or terrorist groups standing on your borders threatening your existence and reminding you of their desire to destroy you with their constant attacks.
But despite my lower salary and the gas masks that sit patiently in my house, I choose to stay in Israel. But not only stay, but cling to Israel and feel deeply passionate about living there. While it may be just another place on the map to most people in the world, it’s my place and my people’s place and it’s the only place where I feel like I truly belong, where I simultaneously connect to my ancient past and see my future unfolding.
And why do I feel all of this? I guess it’s because, in Israel, I found my sense of place.